Through the Looking Glass to Gaddafi’s Tripoli

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Had I been dropped into my Tripoli hotel by airplane, there would be little to indicate that this was the capital of a country at war. Well-dressed women in headscarves and heels click along the marble halls. Waiters in waistcoats take my latte orders with a slight bow. The streets outside are quiet, and for the moment at least, no air strikes to be heard.

But my drive into Tripoli from the Tunisian border last night told a different story. I came legally, as a guest of the regime. I was met at the border by a government bus that ferried me, and a handful of other international journalists, through the multiple checkpoints. Some appeared official, with armed and uniformed guards. Others less so: the guards—boys really, gripping the wooden stocks of their semi-automatics nervously—seemed unorganized and ad-hoc. We barreled through desert scrubland, Santana blaring over the loudspeakers.

We passed through Zuwarah, a seaside town best known for its turquoise waters and silken white sands, and, more recently, for a heated battle between regime loyalists and rebels that took place three weeks ago. The government has retaken the town (what happened to the protestors can only be guessed at), but despite the constant assurances of our driver that everything was “millia millia [local slang for all good – derived from the Italian for 100, as in 100% ok]”, the town looked anything but. Few buildings had all their windows intact, others had been decimated by what looked like RPG rounds. In one office building drapes trailed out of shattered windows like long skirts caught in a car door. It was clear that the fighting had been brutal, but stopping to ask questions was not an option.

Lines hundreds of cars long waiting at petrol stations heralded every town in advance. There was a benzene crisis in the western part of the country, a young Libyan woman told me later, using the local term for gasoline, but if it was due to a shortage or just panic buying, she wasn’t sure.

Zawiyah was another town devastated by violence. Huge, gaping holes scared the fronts of shops lining the road. Shattered concrete columns sprouted bent rebar, and piles of rubble had been pushed to the sides of the road. We drove through silently, and stayed that way until we reached Tripoli, two hours later. Santana, now on repeat for what felt like the 10th time, had developed a nasty skip in the middle of “Oye Como Va.” It gave the familiar chorus an unpredictable, syncopated rhythm that somehow seemed appropriate for our arrival on the other side of the looking glass.

The hotel is brightly lit and humming with the frenzied buzz of frustrated journalists. We have been warned that it’s illegal for taxi drivers to take on foreign journalists, even though we are told in the same breath that there is nothing to hide. There is nowhere to go, and all excursions to the outside world are announced over a PA system that echoes through the chandelier-bedecked halls. The lobby is full of young, English (and even Spanish and Italian) speaking Libyans eager to tell their side of the story. They talk about how much they love Gaddafi, and how the Western press (and al Jazeera and al Arabiya) have got it totally wrong—it is the armed militias of the East that are killing people. They call themselves volunteers, and seem to earnestly believe in what they are saying. I’ve been told again and again that this is a tribal war, and that I simply don’t understand.

I asked one man, Essam, about the news of the foreign minister’s defection. First he denied it, telling me that he had left on official business. Then Essam leaned in, and spoke in a whisper. I leaned forward as well, expecting a confidential avowal that he wished he could defect as well. No. “Moussa Koussa is a thief. You know what he is doing? He stole billions of dollars from our brother leader, Gaddafi, and now he is escaping. He has betrayed his country.”  Essam, who himself has dual citizenship with Malta (and was born in the United States, though never got his citizenship) says he will never leave, that he is Libyan to the core.

He flipped through the photos on his mobile phone. Gaddafi in his trademark orange turban, daughter, father, Gaddafi in military uniform, and then a video clip of Italy’s Berlusconi kissing Gaddafi’s hand, godfather style. “Look,” he said to me, with an anguished tone of betrayal. “Everyone loved Gaddafi for his oil and his money. And now they are all stabbing him in the back. Why would I want a part of that?” He plucked at his nice suit, picked up his new Nokia, pointed at his watch, and pulled the keys to a ford focus out of his pocket. “Gaddafi gave me all of this. It is because of him that we live so well. We don’t have to work if we don’t want to. We have everything we need, and you want to take it away?“

Essam leaned in conspiratorially once again. This time I didn’t know what to expect. “Here you can get everything. I can get Johnnie Walker Blue Label for 70 dinars – that’s cheaper than in Europe!”  I started to pull away, my mind reeling with unvoiced protests. Essam pulled me back, and by doing so laid bare a glimpse of the battlefield he has been conscripted to gain. “Why don’t you show what is really happening here in Libya?” he scrolled through more photos on his phone, finally landing on several of shattered glass panes on a front door – his own. “The bombs, the shooting. My daughter is terrified. They are killing people, innocent people, why are you not showing that? Why are you not going to Green Square [where the pro-Gaddafi supporters reliably show up every time there is a video camera]?”

I brought up the protestors in Benghazi, the anti-Gaddafi activists that had been bludgeoned out of Zuwarah and Zawiyah. “Those people are not rebels,” he snorted. They are murderers. They don’t want to vote for a new leader, they want to…. “ He made the universally understood sign of drawing a finger under his throat. It’s tribal politics, and the West is being manipulated into backing one side against another, he explained.

Finally, I broke away. The blinkered view was oppressive and suffocating, but I didn’t have another reality to fall back upon. Dazed I wandered down the gilded halls of the hotel, craving something concrete and true. Empty frames lined the halls. At first I assumed that it was some sort of design concept, but then I looked closer. Each frame bears scars where paintings had been screwed in place. The management, a hotel clerk explained, removed them all. “In case of war.”